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Edgartown School bears down on math instruction, refashions other classes and mini-courses, in order to lift MCAS scores a few tenths
When word came in October that the Edgartown School had narrowly missed the MCAS performance benchmark for math in the spring 2006 testing, the school's education committee, formed just this year, shifted into high gear.
Math is not just numbers. A whiteboard in
Ms. Brown's class highlights math vocabulary. Photos by Nis Kildegaard
Edgartown School guidance counselor Eric Butler, who's been trained by the state on the software that analyzes MCAS test results, can crank out reams of data with a few computer keystrokes. One of his most popular reports among math teachers lists every question in the spring 2006 tests, starting with the ones on which Edgartown students did the worst compared to their peers across the state.
Almost immediately after the math committee's presentation, assistant principal Anne Fligor and principal Paul Dulac went to the guidance counselor, Eric Butler, who prepares the school schedule every summer. Mr. Butler closeted himself with his computer for two days and emerged on Dec. 13 with a brand-new schedule for implementation when students come back from break on Jan. 2. That schedule includes what Ms. Brown has been pleading for: a full hour for math class, every day.
Math teacher Linda Brown of the Edgartown School works with one of her math students.
If Ms. Brown had her way, there would be a lot more mathematical fun around the school and the community for the children of Edgartown. "We'd really like to see more parents either with the school, involved with their child, or at home with their child, using math," she says. "You can go to the store with your kid and say, how much do you think this box of Cheerios weighs? How many grams is it? Just talk to them - how much do you think one Cheerio weighs? How many Cheerios do you think are in this box? Just do things like that. It can be fun. I think we've taken the fun out of math, and we need to put the fun back in math. I think math is a blast."
If the students can connect with Ms. Brown's sense of the joy of mathematics, they're in for a semester of pure bliss: Between January and summer vacation, the Edgartown School's new schedule packs in nearly 40 hours of extra math instruction for every student in fourth through eighth grades.
Members of the math committee are working hard on plans to make sure every minute of that added time counts toward better scores on the spring 2007 MCAS tests.
They're planning to bring in a consultant, an expert on test-taking strategies from the University of Kansas, for a day of in-service training with the school faculty. They're developing lessons on problem-solving and test-taking skills for their students, and they're planning an intensive push to teach students the specific vocabulary of words used in the MCAS tests.
Teachers are working from a 20-page document which lists the frequency of every math-related term that appears in the MCAS tests - from "account balance" and "acute angle" to "vertices" and "y intercept." Says Donna Gazaille, a third-grade teacher and chairman of the education committee: "What we're finding, sometimes, is it's not necessarily that the students don't know how to do the math, but the vocabulary the test is using, we may not necessarily have been using that."
Ms. Brown agrees: "I think that in the upper grades, the issue of vocabulary is huge, and so are test taking strategies. They have to learn how to take apart that problem. Reading can be a problem for some kids. I think they could do better on a lot of the math test if it was worded differently."
Above all, math teachers are scrutinizing the Department of Education's frameworks for math education, which break down every single skill and concept by school year, mandating when it must be taught and promising that it will be tested on the MCAS.
"We have to teach to the frameworks," says Ms. Brown. "It's like our little Bible. It's our holy scripture, and we have to abide by that. My particular eighth-grade textbook doesn't cover absolutely everything that's in the framework, so I have to supplement it to put in what's not there."
When an interviewer asks Ms. Brown and Ms. Gazaille what this new effort sounds like, they have no trouble finishing his sentence. But there's no joy in their voices when they say the words: Teaching to the test. It's terribly hard for educators to discuss the possibility that this is what they're doing.
Says Ms. Brown, "I guess I would say that all of these things we're teaching - the vocabulary, the problem-solving, the test-taking strategies - are good life skills. When we say test-taking strategies, we're talking about reading directions and following them. It's amazing how many times kids get things wrong because they're not following directions."
Says Ms. Gazaille, "I think what happened is that MCAS maybe has brought to light that we weren't teaching these life skills. When we were teaching computation, you learned how to cross out this number, and make it an eight, and then carry and make it a ten - the kids might have not had a clue what was going on, but the kids who got it memorized did okay. But then when you take that addition and put it into a story problem, the kids can be just baffled."
Adds Ms. Brown, "Maybe it is just semantics, but we don't feel we're doing anything wrong to our kids."
Fierce advocate for math that she is, Ms. Brown admits that if the shoe had been on the other foot - if she'd been asked to give up math time so language arts teachers could have more hours for their classes - she would not have been happy. "I would have been very upset. And I totally understand the feelings of the teachers who are being impacted by this. My response is to say that this is just a quick little fix for right now."
As tests go, Ms. Brown says, the MCAS is actually quite well written. "The questions on MCAS are really good questions," she says. Her beef is with the standards set by the No Child Left Behind Act, which punish schools that don't bring every child up to full proficiency - performance at grade level - by 2014.
No Child Left Behind may be fatally flawed, says Ms. Brown, but it's the law. "We have to make the best of this. And I think that's what the Edgartown School is doing right now."
And she voices the hope that there's a way to make all this good for the children in her care.
"It's not about the MCAS," says Ms. Brown. "It's about teaching children to think. That's what we're here for. But if they keep raising the bar, it's going to collapse on itself. It has to. Because you can't have 100 percent proficiency. You can't."
Yet Ms. Brown can't help looking back at the spring test, at the little gap of seven-tenths of a point that has triggered this massive response from the Edgartown School. "You know, we just missed that target, she says. "We just missed it. Maybe if one kid was absent, that could have made all the difference." u
This is the second in a series of articles about the effects of stiffening MCAS standards on Island schools. The first appeared in the edition of Dec. 14.